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Feature: Art- Interview with Alex Donoghue - Last Supper model for artist Robert Lenkiewicz

Alex Donoghue sitting for Lenkiewicz.

Published: 1 April 2010

THERE was such an air of utter dejection on his familiar face that I couldn’t help looking at him.

I also knew I had seen his face somewhere before. Then it dawned on me – I had seen the face in the auction catalogue.

It was his portrait – and he had just arrived 10 minutes too late – after the auction had ended. When he explained that he had driven at top speed along the motorway but had taken the wrong turning, I realised why he felt so depressed at missing the auction.

He and the painter Robert Lenkiewicz had been friends for more than 25 years, first in Swiss Cottage in the 1960s and 1970s and later in Plymouth, and over the years he had collected 75 paintings by Lenkiewicz.

“We had just left his studio one day when Robert suddenly asked me to go back with him so he could paint my portrait,” 75-year-old Alex Donoghue told me.

“I suppose he suddenly felt inspired, so I went back to the studio, and he painted me, using the portrait for his big oil painting of the Last Supper. I was portrayed as Matthew.”

When I told him that his portrait – a water­colour – had been sold for about £1,000, he looked even more dejected.

“I would have paid that,” he said ruefully.

We were standing in the auction rooms in Exeter where most of the 82 works on sale had gone under the hammer, raising probably nearly £500,000 for an avid fan of Lenkiewicz’s who had arranged to sell his collection through auctioneers Bearnes Hampton and Littlewood.

Alex had been working as a stuntman in the 1960s when he met Lenkiewicz who was living at the time in King Henry’s Road, Primrose Hill.   

“He was such an extraordinary man,” said Alex. “He lived entirely for painting. He had many relationships with women and several children, but a relationship didn’t mean the same thing as it would to anyone else, and his women friends didn’t mind.

“He had no interest or concept of money. Whenever he had it, he would just spend it. Most of the time he was penniless. He would ask people to pay his electricity or gas bills and in return paint their portraits. Those portraits today are worth thousands of pounds.

“He couldn’t stop painting. I saw him two days before he died and he was still painting.”

Lenkiewicz was born in 1941 in West Hampstead after his Jewish parents had fled to England from Austria.  They ran a small hotel in the area as Lenkiewicz grew up and became a star student at St Martin’s School of Art. But he turned his back on the London art scene although his work was beginning to be recognised and moved to Plymouth. He was adopted by the city over the years as an eccentric and gifted artist, and frequent interviews appeared in the local newspapers and on TV. When he died eight years ago, his estate owed the Inland Revenue more than £2million. Three big auctions then raised enough money to clear his debts.

As a painter his subjects were rarely landscapes and more usually people, and the more ordinary they were the more he wanted to capture them. He did special “projects” of portraits of handicapped youngsters, prostitutes, and tramps he’d meet in the street. Such was his fame that well-known actors such as Charles Dance and the former leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foot, commissioned him for their portraits.

Somehow, ordinary people in Plymouth made him one of their own. He was theirs – he was a people’s artist.

It was standing room only in the auction room where about 400 people squeezed themselves in. Most of them didn’t look like art followers or dealers. They had just gone along, many travelling a long distance from Plymouth, to be close, as it were, to someone they felt part of.


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